Betty Ann Bowser: Public Option Debate Continues in Senate

BY Betty Ann Bowser  December 7, 2009 at 10:57 PM EST

It’s all we’ve heard about for months: the public option, a government-run health insurance plan.

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Liberals love the idea. They say it would offer cheap insurance for the uninsured because there would be low administrative costs. And, they reason, it would give private insurance companies much needed competition for customers. Moderates hate the idea. For them the public option represents too much government in health care. They don’t want any federal money to be used and they don’t want the government involved in selling insurance … period. And since the moderates and liberals we’re talking about here are all Democrats, it has become a real dilemma for Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who needs 60 votes to pass a bill. He cannot afford to have members of his party wandering off the real estate. Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine has proposed a “trigger” public option that would kick in only in states in which private insurance is unaffordable to a certain percentage of residents, but no other Republicans are on board.
The current Reid bill being debated on the Senate floor has a public option, but one that would allow individual states to opt out of it if they don’t want to participate. Fiscal conservatives say they won’t vote for a bill with any kind of public option in it. Some liberal Democrats say they won’t vote for a bill WITHOUT it. So, as the song goes, something’s gotta give. And this weekend it appeared that something might. While the Senate continued floor debate in a rare weekend session, ten Democratic senators met behind closed doors and came up with a new proposal. Being billed as a public option alternative, the idea is to establish national health insurance options to be administered by the federal Office of Personnel Management. These are the same people who oversee the insurance program that covers federal employees, but the nonprofit insurance plans are operated by private insurance companies. So in essence what’s being proposed would expand the insurance options offered to federal employees to the rest of the country. But it is not a public option. And for Democratic liberals, it represents a complete abandonment of the public plan. So it’s unclear what will happen next. Americans who want to follow the floor debate can turn to C-SPAN, where they will see senator after senator rise to present amendments and debate the pros and cons. But the real dealmaking is going on outside the chamber, behind closed doors. So it’s our job find out as much as we can about what you don’t see on television. We invite you visit our Rx for Reform Web site. This week we have a series just for online on how a health care reform overhaul could affect some Americans. We are also constantly updating our health reform field guide. And, of course, as the story unfolds we will be updating the health care floor debate. Health care reform right now is a moving target. The story can change hourly. The issues are complex and confusing. So we are trying to make as much of it as possible understandable. One thing is for sure. Health care reform may turn out to the most transformative event of the first part of the century. And we’re trying to give you a ringside seat!